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Public comment on Snake River dams report will be taken telephonically due to coronavirus

In this May 15, 2019 photo, the Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River is seen from the air near Colfax, Washington Farmers, environmentalists, tribal leaders and public utility officials are eagerly awaiting a federal report due Friday, Feb. 28, 2020, that could decide the fate of four hydroelectric dams on the Snake River. (Ted S. Warren / AP)

Federal agencies have canceled a slate of in-person hearings in Washington and Oregon to discuss plans for the Snake River dams, citing concern over the spread of the coronavirus.

A scheduled March 25 meeting in Spokane to take public comment on the federal report, which advised against removal of the dams for environmental and economic reasons, is one of the cancellations.

Meetings also were scheduled in Lewiston, Kennewick, Seattle, Portland and Kalispell, Montana.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and Bonneville Power Administration will instead hold a series of teleconferences to accept public comments on the plan. The first will take place Tuesday.

Multiple conservation groups authored a letter this week requesting the federal agencies not only cancel the in-person meetings following orders by the governors of Oregon and Washington to avoid large gatherings, but to extend the 45-day comment period that began Feb. 28. The groups, which include The Lands Council, Save our Wild Salmon Coalition and Idaho Rivers United, argued that 45 days is not long enough to review the study, which includes thousands of pages of fish and water level research.

“Frankly, I think we find the whole process so deeply flawed,” said Sam Mace, Inland Northwest director of Save our Wild Salmon.

Conservation groups and tribes argue breaching the four dams on the lower Snake River would restore natural salmon migration and the native lands that were inundated when the dams were built, starting in the 1960s. The federal report, the completion of which was hastened by the Trump administration, advised against it, noting the expensive replacement of the hydropower generated by the dams and that goods barged on the river would have to be transported in other, more fossil fuel-dependent ways.

Removal would require an act of Congress, and the region’s Republican lawmakers have said they oppose breaching.

Comments may be submitted online at Callers may join the teleconferences, which will begin at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and again on March 25, 26 and 31. The toll-free number is (844) 721-7241, and it’s necessary to use the access code 5998146#.

Public comments will be taken through April 13.